Indian-origin Dev Shah wins US spelling bee with the word 'Psammophile'

Indian American contestants have dominated the spelling bee in the US, starting with Balu Natarajan' win in 1985

Indian-American eighth-grader Dev Shah wins  2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Photo: Twitter

Indian-American eighth-grader Dev Shah wins 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Photo: Twitter

BS Web Team New Delhi

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Dev Shah, an Indian-origin boy, emerged as the winner of the prestigious 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Shah, who is 14 years old and hails from Florida, took home a cash prize of $50,000 by correctly spelling the 11-letter word "psammophile."

This victory marks Shah’s third participation in the competition, having previously taken part in 2019 and 2021. He is the 27th Indian Ameican to have held the title.

The winning word, "psammophile," refers to an organism that thrives in sandy areas. According to a report by NDTV, during the competition, Shah demonstrated his knowledge of the word's root, explaining that "psammo" comes from the Greek word for sand, while "phile" means love in Greek. The report added that his parents were visibly emotional as they joined him on stage to celebrate this achievement.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee attracted 11 million contestants from around the world, and Shah emerged as one of the 11 finalists, stated the report. The preliminary rounds took place on Tuesday, while the quarterfinals and semifinals followed on Wednesday.

Recent Indian wins

Balu Natarajan was the first Indian American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Natarajan also became the first child of immigrants to win Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1985. Rageshree Ramachandran followed by winning in 1988.

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Nupu Lala’s win 1999 received a lot of notoriety when the documentary, ‘Spellbound’ was released following the journey of the spelling bee contestants.  

George Thampy took home the title in 2000, Pratyush Buddiga in 2002, and Anurag Kashyap in 2005. Sameer Mishra’s win in 2008 started a spree of Indian Americans dominating the competition for 12 years straight.

Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American participant, won the 2021 edition, breaking the 12-year record.

In 2022, Harini Logan won the competition, starting another leg of Indian-Americans winning the spelling bee.

What is Spelling Bee?

Spelling bees are competitions where students demonstrate their language skills by correctly spelling words. These events can take place at school, local, or national levels. Participants study and memorise word lists, origins, and etymologies to prepare themselves for the competition. The goal is to accurately spell the given words, showcasing a deep understanding of spelling rules and patterns.

These competitions play a vital role in promoting language skills, vocabulary, and overall academic excellence among students. Spelling bees have a rich history, with the first Scripps National Bee held in 1925. These events have evolved over time, with words becoming increasingly challenging to match the growing expertise of the participants.

Although the Spelling Bee was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, it made a comeback in 2021 with a few modifications.  

Indian dominance of the event

The spelling bee has witnessed the continued dominance of Indian-Americans who excel in their linguistic skills, especially since 2008. In a story by the New York Times in 2021, the writer, Anna P Kambhampaty stated that spelling bees have witnessed remarkable achievements by South Asian Americans, particularly those of Indian descent, in recent years. This is supported by the fact that since 2008, a South Asian American participant has been crowned the champion at every Scripps National Spelling Bee. In the last three years, at least nine of the finalists had South Asian heritage.

Kambhampaty also stated, “Over the past two decades, spelling bees tailored to South Asian children have proliferated. So have spelling bee coaching companies founded by South Asian Americans. Flyers for local bees are handed out at Indian supermarkets, and the activity is spread through word of mouth at temple events.”

The article also explained how the spelling bee was a source of pride for South Asian Americans and created a sense of community and unity in the group in the US.

Shah's win adds to the growing list of champions of South Asian heritage, with him being the 22nd South Asian American champion in the past 24 years. 

First Published: Jun 2 2023 | 1:47 PM IST

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